When Alex Trebek sits down to record a message for ABC affiliate 6ABC, he knows that his time on Earth is limited. But the long-time host of Jeopardy! does not let it show as he shares a message with viewers. And what Trebek has to say will confirm for his many fans that they have been right to love him for all these years.
Tragically, Trebek passed shortly after recording the message. It wasn’t confirmed straight away why his life had ended, though the 80-year-old game show guru had been coping with a life-changing condition for 20 months. Yes, Trebek had been living with pancreatic cancer, which he’d faced with the good grace he was renowned for.
The Canadian icon came into the world in 1940 in the city of Sudbury, Ontario. He began a career as a journalist – reporting for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. – before moving into TV. In 1966 he started his life as a host of quiz shows in Canada. Though it would be nearly two decades before he tasted the big time.
In 1984 producer Merv Griffin plucked Trebek from relative obscurity to take the role that would define him. That was as the host of Jeopardy!, which the former was reviving alongside another show that would become a fan favorite: Wheel of Fortune. Yet even Griffin could not have predicted what a great choice Trebek would turn out to be.
Trebek would go on to smash records as the host of Jeopardy! His 8,200-plus episodes would see him enter the Guinness World Records for number of shows hosted, as he stayed in the job for 37 glorious seasons. The quiz guru received much acclaim for his work, not least from the Daytime Emmy Awards, which recognized him five times.
But the game show legend would receive some dark news in 2019. And he announced it to the world in a video that he issued in March of that year. Trebek said, “Just like 50,000 other people in the U.S. each year, this week I was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer.”
Trebek took the news bravely, explaining in the video, “Now, normally, the prognosis for this is not very encouraging. But I’m going to fight this. And I’m going to keep working and with the love and support of my family and friends – and with the help of your prayers also – I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics for this [condition].”
Sadly, the outlook isn’t good for those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The American Cancer Society notes that only 9 percent of people with the condition live for another five years, regardless of the stage of cancer that they have. Even so, Trebek did not intend to let it prevent him from hosting the show.
In fact, the beloved Canadian was willing to laugh about his future. He said, “Truth told, I have to [keep hosting] because under the terms of my contract, I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years.” And he showed that his geniality had a base of steel when he added, “So help me. Keep the faith, and we’ll win. We’ll get it done.”
Fans of the legendary host were then treated to an update in May 2019. Trebek told People magazine that he was close to remission. He said, “It’s kind of mind-boggling. The doctors said they hadn’t seen this kind of positive result in their memory… some of the tumors have already shrunk by more than 50 percent.”
Sadly, the news did not continue to be quite as bright as the year wore on. After first trying chemotherapy, Trebek told Good Morning America that he had received medical reports that were approaching normal levels. But then he started to drop the pounds, which turned out to be a sign that the condition had not disappeared. Rather, it had strengthened.
Trebek revealed on the TV show that he’d dropped a dozen pounds in one week. He added, “And my numbers went sky high, much higher than they were when I was first diagnosed. So, the doctors have decided that I have to undergo chemo again, and that’s what I’m doing.”
Trebek had struggled during his experience with the condition, but he had no fear of dying. He told Good Morning America, “The thought of passing on doesn’t frighten me. Other things do. The effect it will have on my loved ones – yes, that bothers me. It makes me sad. But the thought of myself moving on? Hey, folks, it comes with the territory.”
In fact, Trebek acknowledged that at his age, the end was inevitable. He said, “I’m 79 years old. So, hey, I’ve lived a good life, a full life, and I’m nearing the end of that life. I know that.” As a consequence, he was clear, “The thought of the pancreatic cancer does not frighten me.”
Incredibly, by March 2020 Trebek had some better news, which he announced on Twitter. He said, “Hi everyone, If you’ve got a minute I’d like to bring you up to date on my health situation. The one-year survival rate for stage-four pancreatic cancer patients is 18 percent. I’m very happy to report that I’ve just reached that marker.”
The game show host then described the year that he’d spent with cancer. He said, “Now, I’d be lying if I said the journey had been an easy one. There were some good days but a lot of not-so-good days. I joked with friends that the cancer won’t kill me, the chemo treatments will.”
Then in September 2020 Trebek had more happy news. He felt that his treatment had been successful and added that he was looking forward to celebrating two years of survival in February 2021. He told Good Morning America that his doctor expected him to make it. He said, “I expect to be around ’cause he said I will be around. And I expect to be hosting the show if I am around.”
Trebek told the chat show host T.J. Holmes that tests had shown that he was “on the right track.” And the TV personality was bursting with positivity as he approached his 80th birthday. When Holmes complimented him on how well he was doing, Trebek came back with, “Here I am, folks. Eat me up.”
Trebek had been receiving an experimental treatment. The same course of immunotherapy had helped Nevada’s former senator Harry Reid in his fight with pancreatic cancer. And the treatment had resulted in a remission of the latter’s condition in June 2020. But the clock was very much running out on Trebek – despite appearances.
On November 8, 2020, the show that had made Trebek’s name had some sad news to share. His struggle with cancer had come to an end. His employer’s official account tweeted, “Jeopardy! is saddened to share that Alex Trebek passed away peacefully at home early this morning – surrounded by family and friends. Thank you, Alex.”
Sony Pictures Television – responsible for Jeopardy! – shared its thoughts in a statement. It read, “Today, we lost a legend and a beloved member of the Sony Pictures family. For 37 amazing years, Alex Trebek was that comforting voice, that moment of escape and entertainment at the end of a long, hard day for millions of people around the world.”
Friends recalled the kind of man Trebek had been. One, Peter Marshall – himself a game show host – had enjoyed a decades-long relationship with Trebek. He described to 6ABC how he had planned to see Trebek on the weekend of his passing. Marshall said, “He called me and he said, ‘I just can’t make it today, Petey.’ I said, ‘I understand. We’ll see each other next week.’”
Marshall was left with fond memories of a man whom he considered just like a brother. He reminisced to 6ABC, “I loved him very much. In fact, the last time I spoke to him – which was yesterday – I said, ‘Just remember I love you.’ He said, ‘I love you too, Petey.’”
Another mourner – Ruta Lee – had befriended Trebek when both had appeared on the game show High Rollers. She told 6ABC, “There was something about us that clicked not only on camera but off camera as well. I consider him one of my dearest buddies. I’m so grateful to God for the blessing of his joyous friendship.”
Lee had spoken to Trebek a couple of days before the latter had passed. And he had been the same humorous conversationalist that she had known throughout their friendship. She told 6ABC, “It was a wonderful conversation. It was filled with humor. His best features were his wild sense of humor and his fabulous loyalty.”
Trebek’s genial character could be seen in his last message, which he filmed in late October. It was taped for his fans to enjoy for Thanksgiving. In the video, Trebek says, “Hello everyone. All of us here at Jeopardy! love the Delaware Valley and 6ABC and we look forward to the parade safely returning for all of you next year.”
The TV legend then wraps up his message in typical fashion. His thoughts are not on his condition, but on others’ wellbeing. He says, “Until then, stay well everyone. Have a happy Thanksgiving and a great holiday season.” Poignantly, Trebek himself would not get to celebrate the holiday. He sadly passed shortly after recording the message.
Tributes soon began to pour in once the sad news of Trebek’s demise had spread. Among them was a tweet from late-night TV host Stephen Colbert. He wrote, “Alex Trebek was a gentleman, and it was a privilege to share the stage, even briefly, with such a kind, thoughtful guy. Rest in peace.”
Ken Jennings – hailed as Jeopardy!’s greatest champion – shared his feelings, too. The quizzer said he was thinking about the “Jeopardy! family,” which, he said, “in a way, included millions of us.” He tweeted, “Alex wasn’t just the best ever at what he did. He was also a lovely and deeply decent man, and I’m grateful for every minute I got to spend with him.”
Another to pay tribute to Trebek was Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He told his Twitter followers, “Almost every night for more than three decades, Alex Trebek entertained and educated millions around the world – instilling in so many of us a love for trivia. My deepest condolences to his family, friends, and all who are mourning this tremendous loss.”
The kind thoughts and tributes were warmly welcomed by Trebek’s wife Jean. She paid her own tribute on November 11 by sharing a picture from her wedding day, in which Trebek is slipping on her wedding ring. She wrote in the caption on Instagram, “My family and I sincerely thank you all for your compassionate messages and generosity.”
Clearly, the messages that Jean had received had made a strong impression on her. She shared that with her followers on Instagram, writing, “Your expressions have truly touched our hearts. Thank you so very, very much. Many Blessings to all, Jean Trebek.” Certainly, the presenter too had valued his wife of 30 years and how she had borne his illness.
The game show host had told ABC News in a 2019 interview what Jean had gone through with his condition. He said, “It’s always tough for caretakers because she has to deal with her worrying about my well-being and also dealing with… I’m not always the most pleasant person to be around when I’m experiencing severe pain or depression, and she has to tread lightly around me.”
But if you’re a fan of Jeopardy!, don’t fret. Trebek’s passing did not mean the end of his spell on the show. Sony Pictures Television announced that showings of the quiz production would continue to feature him through Christmas Day. This was possible because he had taped all-new episodes in advance – making the last of them only ten days before passing.
And Trebek’s time in front of the camera seemed to do him a power of good. He described to The New York Times that making the show had helped him recover his sense of well-being. He said, “Oddly enough, when we started taping I suddenly started to regain my strength. It’s the strangest thing. It is some kind of an elixir.”
Before the first showing of Jeopardy! on the Monday after Trebek had passed, studio executive Mike Richards paid the show’s own tribute. He took time before the tape was run at its normal time to acknowledge what he described as an “enormous loss.” And that wasn’t all that he had to say.
Richards described Trebek’s feelings about Jeopardy! The producer said, “He loved this show and everything it stood for. In fact, he filmed his final episodes less than two weeks ago. He will forever be an inspiration for his constant desire to learn, his kindness, and for his love of his family.”
It’s not known whether Trebek had any final message on the show, but in January 2020 he had expressed an idea of what it might be in ABC’s What is Jeopardy? He said, “I’ve kind of, in my mind, rehearsed it already, and what I would do on that day is tell the director, ‘Time the show down to leave me 30 seconds at the end. That’s all I want.’”
Trebek continued, “And I will say my goodbyes and I will tell people, ‘Don’t ask me who’s going to replace me because I have no say whatsoever. But I’m sure that if you give them the same love and attention and respect that you have shown me… then they will be a success and the show will continue being a success.’”
There’s no doubt that Trebek saw his potential goodbye statement as important – calling it a “significant moment.” With that in mind, he ended it with some words that express the kindly, thoughtful soul that he was. He said his sign-off would be, “And until we meet again, God bless you and goodbye.”